Cultural Changes in Iraq


Civilization in Iraq dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, whose traditions influence contemporary national pride and national identity. Contrary to most countries in the Arab world, in Iraq, Sunnis are a minority, whilst Shias represent the majority of the population. Before the US intervention, Iraq had a central planned economy and, as a legacy of the past, it is still common to access jobs through clientelistic relations in the government[1]. As a state-building objective, Saddam Hussein once stated that an educated and liberated mother is one who will give back to the country conscious and committed fighters for Iraq[2]. This understanding of family planning is, to some extent, still in place[3].

Recognizing the importance of the tribal structure is key for understanding the Iraqi modern civilization. Throughout the turmoil that have materialized in the country over the centuries, the tribe has always remained the most important social entity. In absence of strong central authority and an accountable bureaucracy (Weber [1922]1968), tribes have played the important function of quasi-polities whose leaders (known as sheikhs) have administered resources, social services, managed emerging social and ethnic conflicts, as well as providing law enforcement capabilities. In order to create an alternative, complementary but still loyal power structure, the Saddam Hussein regime reinforced the functions of tribes as vital socio-political sub-units, re-establishing tribal councils and putting them under direct control of mostly Sunni sheikhs[4].

Sunni tribes are particularly present in central and western Iraq, whilst Shiite tribes in the North. Kurdish tribes are, instead, predominant in the northern part of the country and, more specifically, in Kurdistan. Recent estimations show that at least 75 percent of the Iraqi population belong to one of the country’s 150 tribes[5]. Power relations in the tribes’ social structure remain feudalistic and characterized by a strong hierarchy between members. These represent the basis for clientelistic do ut des bargaining, often exacerbating already existing sectarian divides (eg. Sunni vs. Shia dominated tribes) (Khan 2007). In this tribal-oriented society, individuals are protected, but their rights and autonomy are limited by the sheikhs and by the other members of the tribe. This particularly applies for women and children, who, as members of the family, do not have much right to choose about their own future[6]. The ‘politics of revenge’ is a particular important aspect of Iraqi clans and tribes (see Raymond Hames‘ course lectures and powerpoint presentations) . For clan and tribe members, seeking revenge is seen as a crucial and compulsory act for the maintenance of power and status. Every insult or affront must, in some way, be avenged (see also Eisenstadt 2007).



[1] According to the Arab Barometer for Iraq (2012, p.52) approximately 65 percent of the population state that ‘obtaining employment through connections is extremely widespread’.

[2] See Countries and Their Culture 2015.

[3] According to the Arab Barometer for Iraq (2012, pp. 28-29), ‘over 75 percent agree that men are better than women at political leadership’, whilst approximately ‘25 percent of respondents believe that university education is more important for men than it is for women’.

[4] See Countries and Their Culture 2015.

[5] See Countries and Their Culture 2015.

[6] See 2005.

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